Kids and Reading

The twitter conversation that caught my eye this weekend was started by Joanne Harris, talking about ways to get kids to read, and one of the important things she said is that you mustn’t denigrate a kid’s choices — even if they’re too young or too old for them, even if you don’t think it’s appropriate. You shouldn’t take the book away, even if an eleven year old is picking up Fifty Shades of Grey. And, well, I agree.

See, the thing is, if you forbid something, it becomes even more intriguing. And if they then seek it out for themselves, you’ve put a barrier between yourself and them — they can’t come to you with any questions or problems related to it, because you forbade them to do it and they’re worried about getting in trouble. So say your eleven year old does read E.L. James’ work; wouldn’t you rather they be able to ask questions about what they read, discuss problems with it with you, and not needlessly have them enshrining it as the epitome of adulthood and sexiness and romance?

I don’t recall my parents ever saying I shouldn’t read something. Sometimes my mum thought a book was a bit too ‘old’ for me and it’d spoil it if I tried to read it too young (The Lord of the Rings, for instance), but I only recall that happening once or twice. I had the run of her bookshelves from a very young age, and she got books out of the adult section of the library for me when our librarians wouldn’t even let me into that part of the library. I don’t recall her ever vetting ahead of time the books I was reading, and I don’t recall either of my parents ever talking trash about a book I was reading.

The first time I remember anything of the kind was a school librarian scolding me for reading Enid Blyton — and so I went home and asked my mother why I’d been scolded, and we talked about the racism and sexism of the books, and why people didn’t think much of them. And I’m pretty sure Mum told me that it was okay to read them as long as I understood that, and that of course the books were fun, they were meant to be, and there was nothing wrong with enjoying them. (I’m also fairly sure that was about the same time as I realised that there were much better books out there, as I was meeting wizards and robots; Tolkien, Le Guin and Asimov.)

Racking my brains, those are the only instances I can even think of where I was discouraged from reading anything as a kid. And, well, look at me now…

But seriously, if you want your kid to read, don’t try and drag the “wrong” books out of their hands. Just try and make sure that they know you’re open to them coming and asking questions, and perhaps you could even let them know if you think a book is better put off (it worked with me and The Lord of the Rings, at least). Even if they’re reading comics, books below their reading level, books you don’t like — it’s a door into the world of literature, and if you slam that door, it might put them off finding another. I was older than my peers when I finally started reading, and was still reading books with rhymes and pictures and lots of colour. A year after I finally unlocked that door and learnt to read, I’d leapt ahead of everyone else, while my peers were still bouncing off the school reading books.

(The first door I went through into literature was the door to Cat and Mouse’s house. After that, it was small and round and painted green, with certain marks scratched onto it with a staff: “Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward.” I don’t know how many times I read and reread The Hobbit; again, my parents didn’t try to stop me. Well, there was a creaky floorboard and a loud bedside light designed to let them know if I was reading late into the night, but that was just to make sure I slept.)

Oh, and if your child gets most of their vocabulary from books, don’t mock them when they inevitably pronounce things wrong, please. My mother has had much jollity at my expense because I couldn’t pronounce even simple words, and it didn’t exactly encourage me to use my vocabulary and express myself. Puts a bit of a halt in the conversation when I have to stop and spell out a word because I don’t want to be laughed at if I say it wrong.

Should I ever have children, they’re getting their own library cards and as soon as they’re old enough to express any preference, I’m gonna let them choose whatever they like. Even if I’m sick of reading it. Even if it’s more pictures than words. Even if it’s too difficult for them and it’ll take a long time to get through it, or they’ll get bored of it. I’m going to let them choose, let them know they can talk to me about any and all of it, and make sure that they always, always have access to books — new and old. If they have favourites that they want to revisit, I’ll buy them so that enchantment is waiting ready to hand whenever they want it.

And if they don’t want books, well, I won’t despair. My sister didn’t read much from the age of ten to sixteen or so, and then I put a copy of Century Rain (Alistair Reynolds) in her hands, and she’s been devouring books ever since. Sometimes it just takes the right book at the right time.


10 thoughts on “Kids and Reading

  1. This is a very interesting topic. And while I agree for the most part, I’m not sure I’m convinced to just let kids read whatever. lol I’m definitely going to be thinking about this though, because it’s an awesome point. Thanks for sharing!

    • I just think… forbidding a kid from doing something rarely works, and then if they do it anyway and get in a mess (or are hurt/confused/whatever), you’ve cut the line of communication that lets them come to you, you know? I wouldn’t give a kid (or geez, anyone) Fifty Shades of Grey, but I’m not going to blow it up into a big rite of passage adulthood thing by letting it be forbidden fruit, either.

      That’s what happens with alcohol, drugs, and, often, with sex. I watched it happen to others big time my first year at university — they got away from their parents and went nuts! And then they didn’t know who they could turn to when things went wrong.

      Whereas… for me? I knew my parents trusted me. When a girl at school had casual sex with a guy without protection and came to me for help, I just took my phone out and rang my mother. “What would you tell me to do if I’d just had casual sex and needed plan B and a sexual health check? Oh, and I think we’d better ask about future contraception too. Oh, and it is normal to be uncomfortable going to the toilet after sex?” And she told me the address of the local sexual health clinic, told me she’d explain if the teachers asked where I was, and explained the side effects of the morning-after pill too, and said that, yes, the discomfort was fairly normal and would go away.

      (And because she was my mother and she knew me, she asked me who it was and whether they were okay. I don’t think she had a moment’s anxiety over whether I’d been that person. She can tell you for sure herself if she reads the comments here!)

      • I think your mom is amazing, and was really helpful for you. Again, I’m still not convinced that this is the right way to do things. But I am going to be thinking about it. 😀 Like really, this is going to puzzle me for awhile. And I think different children need different things, different boundaries, different methods of teaching. Thank goodness I’m not having kids yet! 😀

        Thanks for you comment.

        • That’s true! And there are some kids for whom it might be harmful to read certain things, due to background or temperament or something I haven’t even thought of. If I ever have kids, though, I plan to at least make sure they know that even if they’ve done something I said they shouldn’t do, they can come to me about it.

          • Yes! That’s a good point. I know I felt like my parents were sometimes inaccessible, or I was afraid of them. I don’t want to have that be the case for me and my children. 🙂

  2. An excellent post, one with which I heartily concur. My parents encouraged reading by providing lots of books for me and on their own shelves, though they mostly pushed classics and Blyton and, latterly, Reader’s Digest condensed reads (which didn’t float my boat at all when I was into Tarzan and comics and Sutcliff and Trease).

    The late Ludovic Kennedy asserted his libertarian beliefs where books and his children’s omnivorous reading were concerned, much as your parents have done, though my parents were rather more judgemental, which made me more circumspect in what I acknowledged I was at times really reading!

  3. My Mum didn’t like me reading comics – she used to buy me ‘educational’ children’s magazines, which I struggled through to please her. Needless to say, I used to spend a lot of time at my friends’ houses devouring their comics, and I’ve never grown out of Beano-style humour!

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